Shocking the Conscience

Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter's Account of the Civil Rights Movement

Simeon Booker
with Carol McCabe Booker
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Shocking the Conscience
    Book Description:

    Within a few years of its first issue in 1951, Jet, a pocket-size magazine, became the "bible" for news of the civil rights movement. It was said, only half-jokingly, "If it wasn't in Jet, it didn't happen." Writing for the magazine and its glossy, big sisterEbony, for fifty-three years, longer than any other journalist, Washington bureau chief Simeon Booker was on the front lines of virtually every major event of the revolution that transformed America.

    Rather than tracking the freedom struggle from the usually cited ignition points,Shocking the Consciencebegins with a massive voting rights rally in the Mississippi Delta town of Mound Bayou in 1955. It's the first rally since the Supreme Court'sBrowndecision struck fear in the hearts of segregationists across the former Confederacy. It was also Booker's first assignment in the Deep South, and before the next run of the weekly magazine, the killings would begin.Booker vowed that lynchings would no longer be ignored beyond the black press. Jet was reaching into households across America, and he was determined to cover the next murder like none before. He had only a few weeks to wait. A small item on the AP wire reported that a Chicago boy vacationing in Mississippi was missing. Booker was on it, and stayed on it, through one of the most infamous murder trials in U.S. history. His coverage of Emmett Till's death lit a fire that would galvanize the movement, while a succession of U.S. presidents wished it would go away.This is the story of the century that changed everything about journalism, politics, and more in America, as only Simeon Booker, the dean of the black press, could tell it.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-949-5
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xi-2)

    For decades, a pocket-size news magazine published in Chicago and distributed nationally, often by kids before and after school, kept black America informed about the turbulent events that were about to change the lives of black and white Americans alike throughout the country. In 1951, black mega-publisher John H. Johnson introducedJetmagazine to barbershops, beauty salons, doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms, and social centers, until it quickly became a staple in black homes in every Southern backwater and Northern ghetto in America. By 1955,Jethad become the national chronicler of the simmering civil rights movement, and with a...

    (pp. 3-13)

    Nothing in either my upbringing or training prepared me for what I encountered on my first trip to Mississippi in April 1955. I was a thirty-seven-year-old reporter forEbonyandJet, two nationally circulated, black-owned magazines based in Chicago, and had worked previously on both Negro and white newspapers, includingThe Washington Post.

    As a black man I had experienced the indignities of segregation in the border states of Maryland and Virginia, and even in the nation’s capital. “Whites only” water fountains, bathrooms, and lunch counters, job and housing discrimination, and unequal schools were not new to me. But Mississippi...

    (pp. 14-17)

    The voting rights rally proved to be, as expected, the largest ever in Mississippi, with an astounding 13,000 black men, women, and children in attendance—an assemblage unseen in the area since 1909, when Booker T. Washington dedicated the town’s oil mill, the largest black business venture of the early 1900s. Despite the numbers, not one white reporter covered the event. In the racial climate at the time, the most an event of this magnitude would merit would be a line or two in “News From The Colored Community,” normally located adjacent to the want ads section. But two black...

    (pp. 18-25)

    Known paradoxically as both the most hated and the best loved man in Mississippi, Dr. Howard, along with other civil rights leaders in the state, was on a white racist death list. Doc hired gun-toting bodyguards to protect himself and his family around the clock. He kept a small arsenal of weapons in his home, including a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun. Death threats against him and his family became increasingly common.

    During my stay in Mound Bayou, Doc introduced me to another prominent civil rights leader on the Klan’s death list, the Reverend George Washington Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi. Located...

    (pp. 26-48)

    Baltimore molded many giants in the freedom movement, including that great “quarterback” of the civil rights team, Thurgood Marshall, and my first mentor, Carl Murphy, crusading publisher of theAfro-Americannewspapers. I never want it forgotten that I was born there, although I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio.

    In 1917, the year before I was born, my father, Simeon S. (“S. S.”) Booker, General Secretary of the Colored Branch of the Baltimore YMCA, was tasked with raising funds for a new building, after a recent segregation ordinance required the organization to abandon its site at McCulloh and Dolphin Streets. The...

    (pp. 49-62)

    On Saturday afternoon, August 17, 1955, three months after the assassination of the Reverend George Lee in Belzoni, Mississippi, I received a call from a source in the Delta informing me that another civil rights activist in the state had been murdered. Like Rev. Lee, Lamar Smith, a sixty-year-old farmer and World War I vet, was an organizer of black voter registration. Moreover, he had actually voted, along with his wife and other family members, in a primary election eleven days earlier. A close friend of Dr. T. R. M. Howard, he also had been present at the massive Mound...

  9. 6 THE TRIAL
    (pp. 63-83)

    The trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant began on September 19, 1955, less than two weeks after Emmett Till was buried in Chicago. Judge Curtis M. Swango would preside, having insisted that the trial be held during the court’s current session, due to expire shortly, rather than in the next session in the spring. The courthouse was in Sumner, one of Tallahatchie’s two county seats, the other being Charleston.

    Sited appropriately in the town square, the three-story courthouse had all the trappings of respectability: Gothic-style architecture, a clock tower, and a manicured lawn with a Confederate statue on...

    (pp. 84-93)

    By the end of 1955, it was clear that a bureau in the nation’s capital was a must ifJetwere going to succeed as a news magazine. Much of the news germane to the civil rights movement was originating in Washington. The NAACP was pursuing cases in federal courts, including the highest court in the land; access to the American president was no longer through White House maids and valets—there was now a black assistant to the president, E. Frederic Morrow; and there were three black members of Congress—Detroit freshman Charles Diggs, Chicago’s William Dawson, and New...

    (pp. 94-107)

    In New York City in August 1956, a year after the Till kidnapping and murder, the Mound Bayou physician and voting rights activist who had spurred the middle of the night race through the backwoods to find prosecution witnesses solemnly toldJetthat he had left the Mississippi Delta forever. With a $1,000 bounty placed on his head by white racists, forty-eight-year-old Dr. T. R. M. Howard said he felt he could “do more in the battle for Negro rights alive anywhere in the North than dead in a weed-grown grave in Dixie.” Dr. Howard and his wife left behind...

    (pp. 108-111)

    Dwight D. Eisenhower’s eight years as president of the United States saw significant gains for America’s Negro population, many of which were to his credit. But they were also years of horrific civil rights crimes that went unpunished, voting rights that were denied, and very difficult and dangerous challenges for blacks living in pockets of extremely reactionary thinking throughout the Deep South.

    Early in his first term, the president demonstrated that he believed that public funds should not be used to discriminate against people on account of their race. He set about to complete the desegregation of the military, unfinished...

    (pp. 112-130)

    On September 24, 1957, at about 6:00 p.m., 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” Division of the 327th Infantry Regiment began rolling into Little Rock, and dozens of reporters, followed by clusters of curious citizens, raced to watch them leap from trucks to their deployment at Central High School. When the first of the Negro troopers to dismount was brusquely ordered back on the truck, it attracted little notice. But when all the black soldiers in the convoy were ordered to remain on the trucks until they reached camp, they knew something else was unusual about this mission...

    (pp. 131-153)

    I had no opportunity during Eisenhower’s eight years in office to ask him even one question, much less get a full scale interview, but almost two years after he left office, he agreed to give me an hour at his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was writingBlack Man’s America, and, like lots of other people, I had a number of lingering questions about his civil rights record in the White House. When I arrived and was shown to his office, I found the former president congenial and relaxed, leaning back in the chair behind his desk as we talked....

    (pp. 154-161)

    If one thing was clear as the Eisenhower administration waned, it was that blacks would get nowhere fast without increased voting strength, as the power of the ballot appeared to be the only force capable of moving the political machine. While in the South, registrars continued to use the most outrageous tactics to block Negro registration, in the North, the Negro vote returned solidly to the Democratic party in 1958’s mid-term elections, rolling up majorities in Negro communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and San Francisco. As the presidential elections approached, Democrats and Republicans alike maneuvered...

    (pp. 162-173)

    Ebonycelebrated a milestone in the 1960 election year, publishing its fifteenth anniversary issue in November. The magazine had grown to an impressive 172 pages, printing more than 800,000 copies, read by about four million people around the world. It was shipped to some 30 countries, and could be found on newsstands in Paris, Addis Ababa, Lagos, Berlin, and Tokyo. Johnson Publishing Co. had well-outfitted bureaus in Beverly Hills, New York’s Rockefeller Center, and downtown Washington, D.C. As for its editorial concept, the magazine noted that it, too, had evolved: “Ebonywill try to mirror the happier side of Negro...

    (pp. 174-179)

    The day before JFK’s inauguration, I received a telephone call informing me of my selection for the press pool accompanying the president-elect. For a Negro, this was as unprecedented as Kennedy’s earlier rerouting of the campaign planes back to Washington after a Kentucky hotel refused me a room. And this was just the beginning.

    Watching the inaugural parade as the marchers passed the White House reviewing stand, Kennedy noticed that there was no black cadet in the color guard of the United States Coast Guard Academy. When he asked why not, he was told the academy had no black cadets....

    (pp. 180-204)

    Driving the politics behind the nation’s race revolution were the streams of Negroes moving from South to North, and from rural to urban communities, bringing with them the potential to build powerful voting blocs. In 1960, the census bureau reported more than fifteen cities with “exploding Negro populations,” and experts pinpointed such centers as Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia as places to watch—meaning to watch Negroes take over.

    Yet there were federal laws on the books that Southern states were still ignoring, while continuing enforcement of their own Jim Crow codes. Black “patience” with this system had evaporated during the...

    (pp. 205-210)

    If Mother’s Day, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama, had unleashed a level of racial hatred I’d never witnessed before, Thanksgiving Day, 1962, in Washington, D.C., was a close runner-up. The difference was that in the latter instance, the people swinging the fists, and even some chains and other weapons, were black. They were my people. They were our youth. They also were out of control. I had never seen anything like it in my life. And it shocked me beyond description.

    The Thanksgiving Day classic in D.C. at that time was the annual high school football championship game between the top...

    (pp. 211-231)

    As 1962 came to an end,Ebony’s editors cited as the “most spectacular breakthrough” of the year, the “successful, military-backed attack on diehard Mississippi’s color line in higher education” that culminated in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi.¹ While the admission of one student might not seem a great achievement, it was a milestone in light of the “over-our-dead-bodies” resistance. Furthermore, it encouraged others to follow, both at Ole Miss and other all-white schools. The editorial noted that at the end of the year, there were more than 2,000 Negroes enrolled in formerly white colleges...

    (pp. 232-247)

    Two days after President Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson was on the telephone with civil rights leaders to secure their support for an all-out campaign to win passage of the late president’s civil rights bill.¹ The first call was to National Urban League executive director Whitney Young. With the league’s primary focus on jobs, Young had enjoyed frequent and cordial contact with the vice president in LBJ’s role as chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. At forty-two, the former Dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work was an easy person for progressiveminded whites to do business with....

    (pp. 248-264)

    Lyndon Baines Johnson began his Great Society doing something no American president had ever done before: he danced with a Negro woman at his Inaugural Ball. He didn’t give a damn if every newspaper in the country ran the photograph. Lynette Taylor was the wife of fellow Texan Hobart Taylor, co-chairman of the Inaugural Committee, and vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, one of two Negroes with offices in the White House.

    Snow blanketed the nation’s capital during the three-day inaugural celebration, but neither that nor the cold weather dampened the high spirits of the black...

  23. 20 FIGHTING ON
    (pp. 265-281)

    The flames burned in riot-torn Watts for five days, occupying 100 fire brigades and almost 14,000 National Guardsmen, called up to supplement police amid widespread violence and looting. The incident that ignited the rioting was a traffic stop, in which a white California Highway Patrolman had stopped a black driver whom he suspected of being intoxicated. Onlookers gathered, the crowd became hostile, then violent, and in minutes the scene exploded into a disastrous nightmare.JetandEbonyreporters on the scene over the ensuing week likened it to a war zone in some distant country. Ironically, that’s exactly where I...

    (pp. 282-294)

    At seven-foot-two, NBA star Wilt Chamberlain towered above the heads of the thousands of mourners outside Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even at a distance, I spotted him inching his way toward the entrance, but didn’t notice until he was almost there that following behind him was a much smaller, slim white man whose face I recognized instantly. At the door, the security guard saw only the hoop star, and yelled, “Back up folks and let Brother Wilt in,” opening the way for Chamberlain but momentarily blocking the path of his white...

    (pp. 295-310)

    In journalism, as in many professions, if you’re around long enough and do a reasonably good job, you’re likely to gather a few awards to hang on your walls. From a professional standpoint, the recognition of one’s peers is an unparalleled tribute. That’s how I felt when the National Press Club honored me with its prestigious Fourth Estate Award for “a distinguished career in journalism” in 1982. I was the club’s tenth honoree, following to the podium such giants of the journalism world as Walter Cronkite, Scotty Reston, Vermont Royster, and Herbert Block. I was also the first black recipient....

  26. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 311-312)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 313-320)
  28. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 321-322)
  29. Index
    (pp. 323-334)